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De Heaton
Teacher Turns Opera House Into Thriving Community Center

Corning Opera House Cultural Center, De Heaton

Title / Role: Executive Director
Location: Corning, Iowa
Formed in: 2012
How Did Your Business Get Started?

Some business ideas are born out of necessity – others through passion. The revitalization of the Corning Opera House Cultural Center (COHCC) in Corning, Iowa was inspired by both. COHCC was originally built in 1902 and served as an opera house until 1935.   

De Heaton was a music teacher in Corning, at a private school that cut its music program three years in a row. During that time in 2012, Heaton recalls, “The community was talking about restoring the opera house to its original grandeur.”

There was a need, Heaton says. The small, rural community (population: 1,400), “lacked a large facility for weddings, banquets, meetings, and conventions.” In turn, Heaton quit her teaching job and joined COHCC’s board of directors, playing an integral role in the cultural center’s revitalization.

It took a lot of hard work (and money) to restore COHCC to National Historic Register standards. To fund the $4.5 million restoration, the board obtained many local, state, and federal grants, and spearheaded a large capital campaign. When COHCC was ready to open, Heaton became the executive director, inspired, she says, by “the hope of keeping the arts alive by offering diverse opportunities for all ages.” 

The Path to Success

Heaton admits, “As a teacher, I didn’t know a lot about business.” But a serendipitous Facebook ad changed that. Early in 2017, Heaton saw a Facebook ad about SCORE and Sam’s Club’s American Small Business Championship (ASBC), and decided to apply. She was selected as one of two finalists for the state of Iowa. Heaton says that the symposium she attended for ASBC finalists “was great for networking and connecting with other people.” Moreover, the experience introduced her to SCORE’s services.

How SCORE Helped

After that event, Heaton says, “I took several webinars — the SCORE webinars and virtual conferences are amazing — and reached out to one of the instructors asking her to be my mentor.”

That mentor, Sherry Bonelli from the SCORE East Central Iowa chapter, was in a different part of the state, but that wasn’t a problem. Heaton and Bonelli corresponded via email and phone about how to advance COHCC’s goals.

“One of our goals,” Heaton says, “was to improve our social media and website presence [and] Sherry was a big help.” Bonelli says COHCC “needed help with ... how to prioritize what they needed to do from not only a social media and marketing standpoint but also things they could do on their website to help their website traffic.”

Bonelli suggested COHCC add page descriptions to its site and make the brand consistent on all pages, which Heaton says, led to “an increase in web traffic.” On Facebook, Heaton says, “we started using the header like a billboard, making sure it has the important information located on it.”

“Sherry also suggested [adding] call-to-action buttons and building upon our reviews and incorporating those into our website and Facebook headers,” she adds.

Heaton gives SCORE a lot of credit for COHCC’s improved marketing strategy. “SCORE has been very helpful,” she says, “I’ve learned much about marketing, online presence, social media, and more. We look forward to learning more with SCORE mentors and webinars.”


Working with SCORE has increased COHCC’s web traffic and doubled the cultural center’s rentals, says Heaton. She explains that COHCC has become a multi-purpose facility, hosting musical events, business meetings, conferences, backstage tours, and more.  

COHCC, which is completely run by volunteers, says Heaton, is located in “one of the smallest and poorest counties in the state.” But she adds, COHCC has had “a huge impact on the economy in the community.”

COHCC is the 2018 SCORE Award winner for Outstanding Community Impact Business, presented by MassMutual.  

Paying it Forward

Heaton has a lot of advice for people considering starting a business:

  • “Be a solution to a problem that you are passionate about.”
  • “Research the pros and cons, whether that’s talking with family and friends, similar businesses, financial experts, online, etc. Ask for advice and learn as much as you can.”
  • “Create a plan that includes what you are willing to risk in money, time, and your comfort zone.”
  • “Have a support system in place with people who are wise, honest, intelligent, knowledgeable, and great listeners.”
  • “Start small. Little wins equal a big victory but expect some mistakes and failures that you can learn from.”
  • “Speak up. Tell others about your business, your success, your struggles, your goals; always be advocating even at the gas station or grocery store.”
  • “Keep learning and trying new things.” 
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Funded, in part, through a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, and/or recommendations expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.

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